New Light Rail Lines Link U.S. Cities to Colleges, Airports: All Aboard!
Residents of cities on both U.S. coasts are celebrating the completion of light rail transit projects that will help decarbonize the U.S. transportation system. Plus, the U.S. Postal Service plans to buy thousands of electric delivery trucks.
Light rail is rapid transit that operates electric-powered single cars or short trains on fixed rails. The technology sounds simple, but it can take frustrating decades to bring a major transit project to fruition in U.S. cities. Delays happen when factors like politics, inadequate funding, incomplete planning, or poor choice of locations create obstacles.
Light rail projects across the U.S. take longer to build and cost nearly 50 percent more on average than those built in in Europe and Canada, reported "A Blueprint for Building Transit Better," a 2021 study of 180 megaprojects by the nonpartisan Eno Center for Transportation, based in Washington, DC.
Still, these major rail transit projects, years in the pipeline, were completed in the last months of 2022. They are listed in order of completion date, most recent first.
Greater Boston: Green Line Extension
Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA)
With the opening of the Medford Branch on December 12, the MBTA’s $2.3 billion Green Line extension project was completed. The project added 4.7 miles to the light rail line, with five new stations serving the universities to the north such as Harvard and MIT in Cambridge, and Tufts in Medford. Construction took five years from the awarding of the contract. Trains will operate every five to six minutes during peak hours.
All MBTA commuter rail service is provided by push-pull trains powered by diesel locomotives, and the Green Line extension does not change that, But, as the MBTA plans for the future of its commuter rail system, executives are considering a transition from diesel locomotives to electric.
Moving to an electrified system would reduce reliance on fossil fuels and reduce the MBTA's carbon footprint.
The MBTA has launched the Rail Vision program including a $28 billion alternative that would totally electrify the MBTA rail system. The conversion would require: new vehicles, new and updated maintenance facilities, plus a new power supply.
Los Angeles: Crenshaw/LAX Line
Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LA Metro)
Known as the K Line, LA Metro’s latest light rail line is part of a plan to make the Los Angeles International Airport widely accessible by public rail transportation.
The 8.5-mile, $2.1 billion K line that opened on October 7 connects the east/west E Line, which runs from Santa Monica to downtown Los Angeles, with the C Line, which runs between Redondo Beach and Norwalk.
A future automated people mover, expected to open in 2023, will carry passengers along a 2.25-mile elevated guideway from a K Line station to the airport’s central terminal. The cost for the people mover, a Los Angeles World Airports project, is estimated at $2 billion.
New York City: East Side Access
New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA)
The long-awaited $11 billion project to bring Long Island Rail Road trains into Grand Central Terminal on Manhattan’s East Side was promised for completion by the end of 2022. That goal was met, but only with trains shuttling between the new Grand Central Madison terminal and Jamaica station in Queens. Full service will begin "when facility systems testing is complete," the MTA said in a statement.
About 45 percent of LIRR trains to Manhattan will serve Grand Central Madison, relieving train congestion at Penn Station on Manhattan’s West Side.
New York’s East Side Access project uses two rail tunnels built in 1972 under the East River. The tunnels originally were intended for the Long Island Rail Road, but the city ran out of money, and they remained empty until the project was revived 30 years later.
Eric Goldwyn, program director at the Marron Institute at New York University, said that the East Side Access project was “one of the most expensive projects in the world on a per-mile basis."
The benefits of "the centralizing force of rail," he said, include more efficient land use, better quality of life for urban residents and greater climate friendliness. "For transit networks to be effective and to attract people out of cars, they need to be robust and extensive," Goldwyn said.
San Francisco: Central Subway
San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA)
San Francisco’s 1.7-mile Central Subway opened on November 19, a mere 12 years after construction began. The project extended SFMTA’s Metro T Third Line, connecting with Bay Area Rapid Transit trains and the Caltrain station at 4th and King Streets.
The electrified Central Subway will improve transportation to and from some of the densest neighborhoods in San Francisco as it connects Chinatown, Union Square and Market Street. It has reduced air and noise pollution.
The decision to build the $1.6 billion Central Subway "was influenced by considerations of environmental justice and socioeconomic factors," according to the SFMTA.
The project cost $2 billion and went some $375 million over budget due to construction delays. It was completed four years later than originally planned.
Washington, DC: Silver Line Extension
Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA)
With much ceremony, including an appearance by Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority opened the Silver Line Extension on November 15.
THE SILVER LINE EXTENSION IS GOING TO MAKE LIFE MORE AFFORDABLE, GIVE PEOPLE BETTER ACCESS TO JOBS THROUGHOUT THE REGION, REDUCE THE TIME THAT DRIVERS SIT IN TRAFFIC ON OUR ROADS, AND PROVIDE A LEVEL OF CONVENIENCE GETTING TO DULLES AIRPORT THAT HAS BEEN A LONG TIME COMING. ONE YEAR AFTER PRESIDENT BIDEN SIGNED THE BIPARTISAN INFRASTRUCTURE LAW, WE ARE IMPROVING TRANSPORTATION SYSTEMS ACROSS THE COUNTRY TO SAVE TIME AND MONEY FOR COMMUTERS
U.S. Secretary of Transportation
Construction began in 2013 on the 11.4-mile line, which adds six stations, including one at Washington Dulles International Airport, where more than 600 flights arrive and depart daily.
As one of the largest capital construction projects in the United States, the Silver Line provides high-quality, high-capacity transit service between the Dulles corridor and Downtown DC; expands the reach of the existing regional rail system; offers a viable alternative to automobile travel; and supports future development. The railcars running on the Metrorail system are self-propelled, single level and electrically powered.
With 420,000 people living within five miles of the new stations, the Silver Line Extension improves mobility and provides greater access to jobs, entertainment, and shopping destinations.
WMATA’s trip planner shows that a ride from the airport to the Metro Center station in downtown Washington would take 53 minutes. Opening of the $3 billion project was delayed this year by a shortage of railcars, some taken out of service to correct a safety defect.
Bright Future for Light Rail in the East
Built for the future, Amtrak’s newest trains will offer a modern passenger experience. The new trains, called Amtrak Airo, will start debuting in 2026 and operate on routes throughout the eastern portion of the country. Routes include the Amtrak Northeast Regional, Empire Service, Virginia Services, Keystone Service, Downeaster, Cascades, Maple Leaf, New Haven/Springfield Service, Palmetto, Carolinian, Pennsylvanian, Vermonter, Ethan Allen Express and Adirondack.
“As we invest in the future, Amtrak is leading the way with a new era of rail,” said Amtrak President Roger Harris. “Our new trains will transform the Amtrak experience with significant environmental benefits, a progressive design and world-class amenities.”
The new Amtrak Airo trains are more fuel efficient and produce 90 percent fewer particulate emissions in diesel operations than the older trains. The new trains will operate at speeds up to 125 mph and offer near seamless transition between power sources.
Also, along the U.S. Eastern Seaboard, new funding will improve the quality of the electrified rail service on the Northeast Corridor. Millions of riders and travelers depend on the daily service that connects Boston to Providence, New Haven, Stamford, New York City, Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore, to Washington, DC.
On December 22, the U.S. Department of Transportation offered nearly $9 billion in funding to upgrade and expand passenger rail services along the Northeast Corridor, improving infrastructure, bridges and tunnels, rail stations, and track.
"Every day, hundreds of thousands of Americans rely on the Northeast Corridor, our country's busiest rail route," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. "Americans deserve to have the best rail system in the world, and the investments we are announcing today will serve to modernize the Northeast Corridor for generations of passengers."
The Northeast Corridor is one of the highest-volume rail lines in the world. The number of Americans utilizing the corridor continues to grow, approaching pre-pandemic levels, with Amtrak ridership more than doubling in the last 12 months to 9.2 million passengers annually.
TODAY’S INVESTMENTS ARE A MAJOR STEP TOWARDS REVERSING A HALF-CENTURY OF UNDERINVESTMENT IN VITAL RAIL INFRASTRUCTURE AND WILL RESULT IN FEWER DELAYS FOR MILLIONS OF RIDERS AND TRAVELERS.
Administrator, Federal Railroad Administration
The expanded Partnership Program funded by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will ensure that the Northeast Corridor thrives as the region’s economic and transportation backbone, while making its services more reliable, available, and accessible to even more people.”
Earlier this month, Federal Railroad Administration also made nearly $2.3 billion available through the Partnership Program for intercity and high-speed rail projects nationwide. Taken together, more than $11 billion in passenger rail funds have been made available in the first round of funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
U.S. Postal Service Goes Electric
And finally, using funding from the Inflation Reduction Act passed in August 2022, the U.S. Postal Service announced an historic $9.6 billion investment to put a minimum of 60,000 electric delivery trucks on the roads; at least 45,000 delivery trucks will be battery electric by 2028.
The Postal Service will acquire only electric delivery vehicles starting in 2026.
The Postal Service expects to purchase an additional 21,000 battery electric delivery vehicles through 2028, buying a mix of commercial vehicles. Feasibility of achieving 100 percent electrification for the overall Postal Service delivery vehicle fleet will continue to be explored, and additional carbon reductions are being sought through logistics improvements.
Senator Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Clean Air, Climate, and Nuclear Safety, said, "Electrification of the Postal Service kicks our progress toward meeting our climate goals into high gear - reducing greenhouse gas emissions, keeping our communities healthy, and investing in American clean energy manufacturing."